Parents Q&A- My son has self-stimulatory behavior

Parent’s Question: My son is 6 years old and is diagnosed with ASD. After 2 years of training, he can greet people spontaneously with eye contact. However, he still engages in shaking head, flapping hands, etc. All those self-stimulatory behavior makes me feel embarrassed when we are in the public. Except yelling at him to make him stop, anything else I can do?
Self-stimulatory behavior and what to do about it is a very common question from parents and often becomes more in the spotlight as children get older. Often, when the children are still young, it may be less of priority but as the children get older, it begins to highlight their ASD and can be socially ostracizing.

It is important to understand the reasons behind such behavior, which might seem odd and unusual. In fact, we all have self-stimulation! We touch our hair, tap our feet, curl our toes, chew gum, etc. The major reason is just because it feels good! It passes time and engages our senses when we feel bored. It also can give us some outlet when we feel stressed as it may allow us to release the negative feelings that are associated.

For many children with ASD, it is the same. They may have poor leisure skills and not very good social interaction skills, but they have many hours a day where they have free time. It might be common to see children with ASD engage in self-stim during these times to pass the time of day.

One critical difference we can see is that for most typically developing people, they regulate their self-stim so that it does not interfere with their learning and they may only do it at low levels so that they do not stand out. It is highly regulated by our desire to not appear odd.

However, for children with ASD, they may not understand the social world as much or care very much about what others think about them. As a result, their self-stim behavior may happen with more intensity and regularity.

There are many ways to tackle this problem. First is that we believe it is not a need. Some people will see self-stimulation as a need but we do not think this is the case. If you were to see someone eating a lot of chocolate cake very often you would not necessarily think just because they do it often they have a need. We would see self-stimulation as more of a preference and desire ( something they like to do) and sometimes as a coping mechanism for stress.

The following is some recommendations for dealing with self-stim when it serves the function of just having a good time and passing the time of day.
  1. It is critical to teach and develop replacements skills. Play and leisure skills are critical and are often overlooked in favor of cognition and language skills. A good play skills program is essential to teach students ways they can engage in their free time constructively. Breaking down play and leisure skills into small parts and teaching step by step is a great approach to this problem.
  2. Teach daily routines and other chores. According to the age of the student, it is also important to have them engage not only in play but daily routines and chores that can engage their time constructively.
  3. Once you have been teaching some of the above you can begin to infringe upon the self-stim behavior by stopping it and redirecting them to a play and leisure skill or a daily task.
  4. Provide encouragement, praise and reinforcement for absence of the behavior and also more importantly engaging in appropriate use of their time. You may need some more specific behavior systems which we will talk about in coming articles. These can be much more precise but may require some more training to implement.
Again, don’t be afraid to intervene in the self-stim behavior. It will not cause any damage or cause any problems. Actually the more the child engages in the self-stim, the worse it becomes over time. It is often not a behavior a child will grow out of unless intervention is applied. However it is critical that you do not just keep stopping the behavior. You need to direct and teach the child something else to do. This is most important!

For children that are more anxious or use self-stimulation as a stress release strategy, it is more complicated and we will deal with this and advise some other strategies in future articles.

Autism Partnership Toby mountjoyAdvices provided by Toby Mountjoy (Associate Director of AP).
Mr. Toby Mountjoy is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and holds a Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis. With over 20 years of experience working with individuals with ASD, he has been extensively trained by Dr. Ronald Leaf, Dr. Mitchell Taubman and Dr. John McEachin. Besides overseeing the Autism Partnership operation in Hong Kong, Korea, Philippines and Singapore with over 100 staff, including psychologists, consultants and therapists, he has also provided consultations to school districts, agencies, and families worldwide. Mr. Mountjoy has also contributed chapters to publications such as “Sense & Nonsense” and “It’s Time for School”. In 2007, he founded the charitable Autism Partnership Foundation and Aoi Pui School to offer more services for children with Autism.